The Mentality of the Old Country

I could not be more proud of my student, Robbie. From 15 years of age until his 20th birthday, Robbie smoked pot daily, stole from his parents, and lied every time he opened his mouth. In college, his major was being a general pain in the ass. He refused to go to school. When he did go to school, his big mouth and disrespectful attitude resulted in his being thrown out and significantly under-performing. He attended and flunked out of three different colleges before going to a program and getting clean.

Today Robbie has been drug and alcohol free for two years. He goes to Narcotic's Anonymous meetings, works the 12 steps, and helps younger adults with substance abuse and addiction issues. He has a full time job and is financially independent from his parents. He's even paying them back for all the money he stole when he was using--although he acknowledges that on his modest salary, these payments are mostly symbolic. I can't say enough about this young man and the progress he's made.

The problem now is that Robbie feels that he has to get back to university. He wants to make up for the time he lost while he was using, get a college degree, and advance in his career. In short, he feels that he should be graduated in five minutes.

And, as a result, he is completely unable to get started.

He hasn't signed up for courses; he hasn't looked at classes. He's so thoroughly focused on taking the last step that he can't take the first one. He wants to get it all done at once.

Robbie has the mentality of the old country. He says so himself. "My great-grandfather came to the United States, worked sixty hours a week, sent money back to Europe so his wife could come over, went to college, and had five children," he laments.

I am sensitive to this view and told Robbie that I agreed with him: "Yes, Robbie, your great-grandfather did have five children. But probably not all on the same day."

***

"But every successful person in this country does more than I do," Robbie goes on. "I'm not doing enough. Other kids work full time and take a full load of courses in college."

"Yes, and some people get a PhD in aeronautical engineering, a black belt in Shotokan karate, and subsequently go on to walk on the moon. You are not one of those people. Not just today anyway. There are no flights to the moon this morning."

"But some people over come more adversity than I have."

"Yes, and some people overcome less. And some people never get over their addictions to drugs and alcohol. And some people grow up to be president. Your job is to stay clean, to do the best you can and work and to accept yourself for who you are. Today, you just have to be satisfied with going to work, staying sober, paying down some debt to your parents and getting your laundry done. Maybe you can get a PhD in aeronautical engineering and walk on the moon tomorrow."

***

I had a dear friend, Liz, in graduate school who was stuck on her dissertation. Really, truly and thoroughly stuck. Mega-stuck. The La Brea Tar Pits had nothing on Liz. She would sit in front of her computer every day, for hours at a stretch. She would type a sentence. Then hit the 'backspace' key. She would type a paragraph. Then erase the paragraph and start over staring at a blank screen. As she missed one deadline after another, she berated herself more and more. She fell deeper and deeper into self loathing and despair. Nobody ever worked harder and accomplished less.

Finally, we all sat down with her and helped her understand that if she wrote something--even if she thought it was terrible--that there was some chance that she would get her PhD. But that no matter how long she stared at the screen and no matter how many imperfect sentences she erased, she was unlikely to get a degree. We even got her a plaque that read: "Don't get it right; just get it written."

Today, "Dr. Liz" has a thriving private practice and helps adolescents and families. I'm not sure that anyone knows or cares what she wrote about all those years ago.

Should Liz have written something "better," something more important, something that her own mother might actually have read? No. She needed to write what she could have, not what she should have.

Robbie too will come to understand that he's doing fine. Yes, he wasted five years in a cloud of marijuana smoke. No, he can't get that time back no matter how hard he beats himself up. He's going to have to accept that "Perfect is the enemy of good."

And just this past week, he signed up for one college course.

Maybe the adage, "The longest journey begins with a single step" should be made more explicit: "The longest journey doesn't begin until the first step is taken."

One thought on “The Mentality of the Old Country

  1. andy glatstein

    Really well-stated.
    Just git-r-done as they say in Carolina.
    Shut up and do it.
    It’s a very difficult lesson, but none more important.
    Performance, not intention.

    Reply

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